“You can’t kill me again.” ~ Boris Karloff in The Walking Dead
Boris Karloff is the man who lived again in a film that combines Universal horror with Warner gangster drama. A group of racketeers and a crooked attorney frame former convict John Ellman for the murder of a judge. Two young eyewitnesses—and the film’s romantic couple— see the frame-up and know the truth but are too frightened to step forward to clear Ellman. Will they be too late to save him from the electric chair? And what’s the secret in Dr. Beaumont’s lab that offers hope? What follows is a truly surprising sequence that takes the film into science fiction. Rising above the ordinary, this genuinely suspenseful and moody film has something to say about capital punishment, a corrupt criminal justice system, and life after death.
The Walking Dead is a B movie just over an hour in length. Except for Karloff, who was by then an international star, the cast is made up of featured players and character actors—but no stars. Despite this, the film has much to offer and was made with a great deal of care. The Walking Dead was directed by Michael Curtiz, who of course helmed some of the biggest films for Warner Brothers including 1942’s Casablanca. With this assignment he was not being punished, as Humphrey Bogart would be with The Return of Dr. X. Warner Brothers simply wanted The Walking Dead to succeed, and so they assigned their best director to the project. In fact, Curtiz had experience in the genre having previously directed two outstanding horror films: Dr. X and The Mystery of the Wax Museum.
The Walking Dead was shot in 1935 in only 18 days. The film has the feel and look of the studio’s “A” films. Warners was known for their crime dramas with their urban settings. The opening scenes have that kinetic energy, giving the viewer the familiar Warner atmosphere with action set in a courtroom and newsroom. The film has a breakneck pace with one scene inventively merging into the next. Two scenes, in particular, which stand out include the “death house” sequence– offering German Expressionist camerawork and Dutch angles by cinematographer Hal Mohr– and the scene in which Karloff is on display for the racketeers and performs Rubinstein’s Kamenoi-Ostrow on the piano, which is the musical motif throughout the film. Whether it’s the high angle shot of a convict playing Ellman’s favorite musical piece on a cello or the haunting flash of Karloff’s image in a bedroom mirror, these are wonderful moments that separate the film from the usual B movie fare.
The storyline, like other Warner Brothers films, dealt with events that were then topical. The electric chair was often in the news and turned up in many crime films of the period, including Angels With Dirty Faces, which was also directed by Michael Curtiz. But more specific to The Walking Dead were headlines of a scientific nature. In the film there is a reference to the Lindbergh heart, which was a method of keeping human organs alive in a chamber. This method would pave the way for the development of the modern artificial heart. The Lindbergh heart was developed by aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and Dr. Alexis Carrel, the latter having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1912. The ability to sustain life outside the body was a scientific breakthrough and a major headline in 1935, the same year The Walking Dead went into production.
Another important influence on the film was the work of Dr. Robert Cornish, who was involved in the scientifically questionable method of re-animating dead bodies. His idea was to use a see-saw to help circulate the blood in the victim—at first experimenting on those who had died from electrocution or drowning. He had no success until he refined his process on animals. In 1934 he was able to restore life to a dog named Lazarus IV, which had been pronounced dead. There was no further record of animals or humans being restored to life, but in later years, Dr. Cornish did develop his own brand of toothpaste.
Though these headlines gave the film a topical interest, nothing compared to the name KARLOFF headlining theatre displays across the country. He alone was the box office draw on this film. Boris Karloff had a non-exclusive contract with Universal which allowed him to work at other studios. The Walking Dead was the first and best of five films he would make at Warner Brothers in the late 1930s. The others being West of Shanghai, The Invisible Menace, Devil’s Island, and British Intelligence.
The role of John Ellman is one of Karloff’s best away from Universal. Once again, he reveals a great depth of sadness through his expressive eyes. He is a lost soul, and this is most touchingly conveyed when his character is seen wandering the cemetery at night. It’s a moving performance, and he makes the character the most sympathetic one in the movie. One of the more interesting stories that Greg Mank tells about the production was Boris Karloff’s role in shaping the character. In the original story treatment, the Ellman character came across more like a wild dog unable to speak, but it was Karloff who turned Ellman into the version we see in the finished film. It was also Karloff who came up with the idea of using music to trigger Ellman’s memories of his past life.
The doctor who brings him back to the world of the living is played by Edmund Gwenn, a distinguished character actor best known for his roles in Miracle on 34th Street and the science fiction classic Them! His two assistants are played by Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill. Hull is remembered today by film buffs for his roles in movie serials like The Spider’s Web and The Green Hornet Strikes Again. In later years he would host the TV game show “Strike it Rich.” Marguerite Churchill is known for another horror film she appeared in that same year: Dracula’s Daughter.
The gang of racketeers is a “who’s who” of great character actors. Two of the more noteworthy include Barton MacLane as Loder and Ricardo Cortez as the attorney Nolan. Film historian William K. Everson said of Barton MacLane: “He never spoke when shouting would do.” He often played the heavy and appeared in countless films for Warner Brothers during their heyday. Ricardo Cortez had been cast as a Valentino-like leading man in the silent era, but by the early 1930s he had shed that image. With his shark-like grin and smarmy manner, he was the villain audiences loved to hate, almost always being shot, stabbed, or poisoned in the pre-Code era.
The Walking Dead was made near the end of the first great wave of horror films. Censorship, particularly from Britain, threatened the overseas market. The genre itself was under close scrutiny. By 1937, the horror genre would be all but dead, and it would be a couple years before it would be brought back to life with the Son of Frankenstein. But in early 1936, horror films were still being released. Though The Walking Dead hasn’t left the lasting impression that The Mummy or The Bride of Frankenstein has, it is a well-crafted and suspenseful chiller. It’s also a wonderful example of the tight storytelling that Hollywood employed in those days, especially in the era of the B movie. If this were made today, it would be about two hours long and loaded with gruesome details.
In its own way, The Walking Dead is a profound film with more depth than most of the purely escapist films of the time, asking questions that go beyond the scope of its 66 minutes. “What is death?” The answers and implications are only suggested. The Walking Dead is a terrific, often overlooked film that I’ve shown before as part of a double feature at the LaSalle Bank revival theatre in Chicago. And now, the dead will walk again in Park Ridge. I’d like to end with a quote from author Greg Mank who wrote, “Yet, this horror/gangster morality tale dares to be different by making Karloff’s monster Heaven’s avenging angel. The remarkable sensitivity of Karloff’s bravura performance, the solid direction by (Michael) Curtiz, and a script that insists on delivering more than expected all create one of the most surprising, moving, and truly spiritual horror movies of the time.”
For more on The Walking Dead, refer to The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema (2014) by Gregory William Mank.
ADDENDUM: We had 61 in attendance on 4/23/15. More importantly, we had some good comments and questions afterward. One of our regulars, Joe Paolelli, a young theology student, said he would mention this film in his class, which coincidentally had been discussing the definition of resurrection (as a Christian concept versus resusitation). Also, in the film, both John Ellman and Dr. Beaumont use the quote, “The Lord our God is a jealous God.” After the show, one lady questioned the meaning of “jealous” in relation to God and how could a human emotion like that be applied to Him? To help answer this, I asked Joe, who responded:
“That is a quote from the Old Testament. It comes up several times in the Pentateuch and the prophets, always in reference to God’s requirement of absolute loyalty in the face of lesser “gods.” It first occurs in the 10 Commandments.
I interpret it from two perspectives: on the more pragmatic side, I suspect the filmmakers were attempting to incorporate scriptural dialogue in a way that would not specifically endorse a religion. At this time in American history, that basically meant using an Old Testament quote that would be appreciated by both Jews and Christians.
But one might ask, Why use that particular quote? In the Old Testament stories, God describes Himself as “jealous” whenever He is calling His people to absolute loyalty. Just as a husband or wife is sometimes referred to as “jealous,” and this is meant to imply that they are protective of their spouse and their relationship, God is described as “jealous” because He is protective of His people’s allegiance.
The film presents death as shrouded in mystery, and lifting this shroud is one of the major themes of the latter half of the movie. Thus, the use of the quote suggests that God is protective of this mystery. That is why Ellman dies before he reveals any details about his experience after death.
Overall, I am impressed with the filmmakers’ ability to present an engaging story imbued with religious undertones while remaining accessible to a wide variety of beliefs and worldviews. This strikes me as ambiguous enough not to turn many people off, but definite enough to make some basic metaphysical claims that invite a reflective response from the viewer.”